The Best Records of 2003 

From world fusion to gangsta hip-hop to Broadway-bound folk princesses, our critics sift through the year's finest.


The look: Insomniac lumberjacks. The gear: Acres of beat-up garage sale keyboards. The voice: Jason Lytle's Nilla Wafer-thin falsetto rasp. The result: pulverizingly gorgeous space-rock, an eight-days-unshaven grandiosity that nails the great nonmilitary spiritual crisis of our time -- the battle between the soul-destroying technology in your office cubicle and the life-affirming natural world that blooms beyond it -- with luscious pop that disguises how important the outcome is. Unbelievable, irreplaceable. (V2)

You Forgot It in People
As catastrophically messy as your bedroom after a violent eight-day post-breakup crying binge, this Canuck indie-rock art project alone can finally pull you out of it. It's like a ten-mile-wide sidewalk chalk mural bombarded by a flash monsoon: The thoroughly rockin' guitar freakouts bleed into the lewd dream-pop piano ballads and the oddball, intimate instrumentals. Thirteen audaciously ambitious tunes designed to make the coldest-hearted Pitchfork reader fall in love. (Arts & Crafts)

Reconstruction Site
More hosers with English degrees, overflowing diaries, and screeching Telecasters. With apologies to Missy Elliott, "Plea from a Cat Named Virtue" is 2003's shoulda-been grand-slam hit single, a feline-POV deconstruction of postgraduate loneliness and aimlessness that still rocks hard enough to land the band on Epitaph. It's nestled deep in a lovely chicken soup of pointy-headed literary references and hooks, too smart for its own good but just warm enough for yours. (Epitaph)

Give Up
You got a cheap Casio keyboard for Christmas. You got a hot date for the Harvest Dance. You got a Molly Ringwald fixation. You got Jazzercise class Tuesday night. You got a twenty-pound block of electro-pop cheese in the fridge. You got Death Cab refugee Ben Gibbard crooning lovelorn lyrics so unabashedly dorky you can almost hear the jocks givin' him a swirlie in the background. You got a sense of melody as effortless and glorious as the foam on your root beer float. You got it, and it gots you. (Sub Pop)

Yours, Mine and Ours
Melancholy as the highest form of beauty. Joe Pernice is Morrissey stripped of his douchebaggery, blessed with a wit sharp enough to recognize the absurdity of his pain and a bleeding heart large enough to still feel that pain acutely. Together they merge into a Thinkin' Fellers rustic rock juggernaut epic enough for AM radio but intimate enough to turn your headphones into angel's wings. Please please please let him get what he wants, but wait a couple more albums. (Ashmont)

Decoration Day
The three best American novelists still breathing have abandoned the form entirely and now guzzle brew-dogs, channel Skynyrd, and bow down to their snarling amps instead. Each track on this Southern rock super-epic packs enough surging electricity to juice up the surliest biker bar, but the generosity and compassion the Truckers' triple-threat songwriter team brings to its characters screams "Pulitzer" as loudly as it screams "PBR." Pump your fist without irony for once in your life. (New West)

Eight Million Stories
Blueprint just wants to buy his girlfriend a chalupa: "I wanted Taco Bell -- she like, 'You cheap as hell.'" Perfect timing, perfect delivery. When all the indie hip-hop world seems obsessed with its own perceived hardness, you need this guy: witty, urbane, mischievous. There's a dark inner-city soul to this two-man tap dance between 'Print's barely-not-cracking-himself-up wisecracks and superproducer RJD2's shockingly fly beats, but this record's aural grin never fades. (Fatbeats)

The Decline of British Sea Power
Nautical metaphor overload! Behold the S.S. Pretentious Brit-Rock, hopelessly adrift on stormy seas and assailed by jagged waves of hardcore guitars, overexcitable drumbeat thunderbolts, and the howling wind of a crazed, drunken narrator who bellows Poe-caliber cryptic poetry as if he were rewriting "Wonderwall." Lush, romantic, bizarre, amusing, life-threatening, life-affirming. (Sanctuary)

Team Boo
Music to skip by. Blissfully wedded lovebirds Kori Gardner and Jason Hammel bleat out hideously giddy keyboard-and-drums Pop-Tarts eight times cheerier than any other CD on yer shelf, but you'll stop sneering and forgive 'em eventually, once the sheer joy and sly inventiveness of these quietly complicated tunes finally sink in. The lyrics make no sense; nor does your crush on your History 232 teaching assistant. (Polyvinyl)

Any flannel-clad rustic mistress with a twang in her voice and a sinking stone in her stomach must bear the scarlet LW (Lucinda Williams), but Edwards bursts straight outta Ottawa with a disarmingly husky croon and a U-Haul full of heartbreak, cheap sex, self-medication, and infinite sadness. She sounds like your rain-drenched beagle looks, and howls prettier, too. (Rounder)


With an open, assured attitude fueled by producer Fat Jon's on-point experimental production, this Cincinnati crew brings a baker's dozen of soulful tunes that meld classic hip-hop with the funkiest aspects of electronic music. Putting aside the playa/hustla norms of today's rap game, Kinkynasti includes a great clutch of de-machofied, playfully sexy songs, including one about an extraterrestrial romance. You know you're feeling Deez cuts. (!K7)

Many in High Places Are Not Well
Indie drummer/producer Doug Scharin and his merry revue of players deliver a post-rock milestone with this perceptively titled sixth album. For years, HiM has merged the best aspects of Afrobeat, post-bop jazz, and dub into a potent sonic stew. But Many sees Scharin add the gorgeous kora harp of Abdou M'Boup and the minimalist vocals of Christian Daustreme and múm's Kristin Anna Valtysdottir to create an emotive energy rarely found in a rock-derived album that doesn't emphasize lyrics. (Bubblecore)

Fabric Vol. 11 (Swayzak)
British DJ/producers James Taylor and David Brown (collectively known as Swayzak) remember when house music had a brain, infusing its 4/4 beat with elements of synth pop, dub reggae, techno, and jazz. Their mix of current and past artists -- including Akufen, Herbert, and Thomas Dolby -- sonically chronicles a hipster's night out, from driving to the club, wading through a freaky crowd, and emerging into the dawn. Veterans that they are, Swayzak bring an unmatched natural flow to their flawless selection. (Fabric)

Original Blue Recordings 1970-1979
In reggae, there are three kinds of singers: those who try to sing, those who can sing, and Cornell Campbell. As this German-released anthology shows, Campbell's smooth, grainy falsetto found no better host in '70s Jamaica than producer Bunny Lee. With his groovy arrangements, Lee showcased the crooner's range via relevant, self-penned street anthems, as well as covers of both island hits and love tunes by US soulsters like Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke. (Moll-Selekta)

Radio Blackout
Much as techno and punk have both served as music to annoy your parents, few artists have merged the two genres like Berlin-based drummer/producer Marco Haas, who records as T. Raumschmiere. But Haas doesn't just create a stomping, distorted new brand of digital garage rock. He clutters up the oft-sterile subgenre of minimalist techno with buzzing broken-toy noise, and even brandishes some android hip-hop with rhymer MC Soom T. As Haas himself likes to say, "You make me sick, I make MuSick." (Novamute)

In the hands of Jamaican producers who've absorbed everything from flamenco to bhangra, dancehall reggae has experimented its way onto America's pop charts. But as the Bug, British noisemaster Kevin Martin takes the genre to artful extremes, lacing his dubby mix of crunchy drum programs and pounding bass lines with vocals from MCs such as Daddy Freddy and spoken-word artist Roger Robinson. Taking you from dancehall to dance hell, the Bug is the bad bwoy in town. (Tigerbeat6)

Vintage Hi-Tech
On their second album, singer/producer Steve Spacek and his producer buds Edmund Cavill and Morgan Zarate continue their subtle zig-zaggings across the R&B-electronica border. Like the Neptunes, Spacek places high value on snappy, minimalist funk that highlights the wonders of both sampling and silence. Unlike its American counterparts, however, Spacek also relies on its namesake's understated lyrics and sensual high-pitched cooings, which make Vintage both a standout in the pop sphere and a perfect soundtrack for doin' the nasty. (!K7)

Never Trust a Hippy
After 25 years of dragging dub reggae and dance music into the 21st century with his On-U Sound label, UK producer Adrian Sherwood makes his first solo statement, and what a transglobal one it is. Vocalists from Jamaica (Ghetto Priest) and Pakistan (Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali), along with legendary rhythm section Sly & Robbie, help Sherwood blend African, Caribbean, South Asian, Middle Eastern, ambient, and jazz flavors into what the producer terms "world-music-sci-fi-dub dancehall." You'll just call it a serious head-charge. (Real World)

One Word Extinguisher
Producer Scott Herren's second album of tweaked-out breakbeats and melodic techno-driven melodies finds him strolling right over Hip-Hop Lane's cliff arm in arm with both Aphex Twin and Timbaland. Featuring guests such as Bay Area mavens Mr. Lif and Tommy Guerrero, One Word Extinguisher offers a funkdafied digital blueprint for what's next in both glitchy electronica and underground rap. You won't hear Prefuse 73 on urban radio next year, but you will hear his innovations. (Warp)

Tour de France Soundtracks
Germany's techno forefathers calmly reassert their vaunted status on their first album in fifteen years. Expanding on the concept of its 1983 hit single saluting France's famous bike race, Kraftwerk's precisely percussive electro jams chronicle the bike racer's training program, integrating everything from bleeping cardiograms to whirring gears into their propulsive, man-machine sound. A generation of bedroom producers have aimed their synths and drum machines at these guys, but no one will unseat the 'Werk. (Astralwerks)


World and electronic music have been on a collision course for some time, but few albums made this ironic juxtaposition work better. Mixing 21st-century soul vocals with ancient chants while incorporating African and Brazilian rhythms into dub soundscapes and making it all sound highly groovalistic, Serious represents a fruitful marriage of technology and tradition. (Palm Pictures)

Trumpeter Roy Hargrove helped the Roots and D'Angelo fashion the neo-soul sound. But every genre has its limitations, so Hargrove headed up a wide-ranging project that takes neo-soul's retro-futurist vibe deeper into the realms of blues, jazz, and funk. A stellar cast of guest artists -- including Q-Tip, Macy Gray, and Erykah Badu -- adds to the album's buzzworthiness, while the RH Factor's well-oiled musicianship allows HardGroove to live up to its title. (Verve)

One of the few contemporary reggae releases that stands up to the recent outpouring of excellent roots reissues, Smile finds the cultural dancehall artist feeling increasingly irie with his newfound star status. Kelly's versatility is evident: He mixes romantic material with Rasta meditations and ghetto youth-oriented social commentary, and even handles production duties on a few tunes. (VP)

In an off year for hip-hop full-lengths, this holdover from late 2002 sounded better and better as 2003 went on. Cody ChesnuTT's procreation-fixated guest vocals birthed a crossover hit with "The Seed 2.0," while Black Thought remained impeccable lyrically, even as the Roots shied away from the softer tones of neo-soul toward a hard-edged rap 'n' roll sound that fit this year's often-chaotic mood to a T. (MCA)

Coming on the heels of Lenky Marsden's effervescent Diwali riddim -- which blended Middle Eastern melodies with infectious dancehall beats -- Panjabi MC's "Beware of the Boys" (featuring Jay-Z) was one of the tastiest singles to hit the urban scene in 2003. The Jigga-fied remix and the song's original version bookend what is easily one of the year's best-produced hip-hop albums, with a global perspective that seamlessly fuses tabla and doumbek beats with James Brown basslines. (Sequence)

The Roots of Dub and
Dub from the Roots
The dub template created by Osbourne Ruddock (aka King Tubby) has been a seminal influence on every form of electronic music that came after it, from dancehall to hip-hop to house to two-step. This crucial reissue of two of Tubby's '70s dub albums proves that nobody has yet improved on that blueprint, digital editing software and high-tech samplers notwithstanding. To paraphrase one song, this is "Dub You Can Feel." (Moll-Selekta)

From Boogaloo to Beck
The welcome return of the Hammond B-3 organ was heralded by this magnanimous recording, which interpreted the songs of alt.pop chameleon Beck into a boogaloo framework. In the capable hands of Dr. Smith and his assistant, tenor saxophonist Newman, this translated to an album's worth of inspired jazz-funk jams, which proved both engaging and technically brilliant. (Scufflin')

No Escape from the Blues
There really was no escaping the blues in its official year, although the flood of reissue compilations emphasized the storied genre's past more than its present. However, Ulmer made it clear there's still a pulse in the art form, even as Scorsese and PBS were mythologizing it. A fine companion to Ulmer's acclaimed 2001 album Memphis Blood, No Escape is highlighted by outstanding modern renditions of classics such as "Ghetto Child" and "Who's Been Talkin'." (Hyena)

Bay Area Funk
Compiled from rare 45s and featuring sixteen tracks previously unavailable on CD, this collection of funky blasts from the Bay Area's past allows the casual listener to benefit from crate-digging expeditions without venturing into dank basements looking for that elusive groove. Bay Area Funk forms a reissue trinity with Luv 'n' Haight's recent releases California Soul and Inner City Sounds and is easily the best of the three, thematically and musically. (Luv 'n' Haight)

Drop the Debt
Paralleling last year's Red, Hot & Riot compilation, Drop the Debt collects a plethora of artists from around the African diaspora for a common cause, in this case relief from Africa's crippling foreign debt. While perhaps not as solid from top to bottom as RH&R, it offers a fascinating look into international rhythms, as eye-opening as anything in National Geographic. If you've ever wondered what West African reggae by way of South America sounds like, look no further. (World Village)


While some might bemoan the "loss" of Elvis the erudite rocker (he still rocks in concert, at least), North finds the eclectic songster staking out new territory: the serious, haunted crooner. It's as if he set out to craft a counterpart to the 1950s romantic-angst concept album Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, but with all original songs written in the poignant, hit-and-run-over-by-love style of standards such as "One for My Baby" -- and by gum, Elvis does it. (Deutsche Grammophon)

'Til the Wheels Fall Off
Rock 'n' roll and maturity don't often mix well -- but in Amy Rigby's case, they mutually thrive. She combines a singer-songwriter's detailed introspection with the audacity, wit, and melodic hooks of a rock 'n' roller who grew up on Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, and '60s and '70s punk rock. Wheels is the sound of a woman being dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood, not going gently into middle age's good (staid) night. (Signature Sounds)

No Frills Friend
For the time being, NYC's Amy Allison sets aside the old-school honky-tonk country of her previous albums and instead applies her unique nasal warble to bittersweet, layered folk-rock. Thankfully, it's a real charmer, from the snappy girl-group evocation "Baby, You're the One" to the jangle of "Hell to Pay" and the poignant, autumnal "Pretty Things to Buy." (Diesel Only)

The Ladybug Transistor
The older I get, the more I want to listen to music that's harmonious without being bland, and these Brooklynites fit the bill beautifully. Recalling the bygone days of winsome, pretty popsters like the Association and the Hollies -- not to mention the elegant songcraft of Burt Bacharach -- the Transistor is America's answer to Belle and Sebastian: melancholy music full of baroque detail, but touched with wry humor and channeled into tunes that linger in your mind long after the disc is over. (Merge)

No Escape from the Blues
If you think the blues have been homogenized like punk rock has, then this disc is a must. Ulmer started out in jazz (most notably with Ornette Coleman), but in recent years he has reinvented himself as a bluesman linking the country blues and electric urban blues eras, and No Escape may be his Ultimate Statement: smoldering, raw (but never sloppy), and spiced with atypical elements like Hendrix-esque feedback and Spiritualized-style space-drone. (Hyena)

Under the Moon
Many jazz singers seem curiously out of time, mired in hackneyed, morose, emotionally dysfunctional standards-land. Not Ms. Sfraga. A singularly eclectic interpreter, she mines a variety of songs from sources as seemingly disparate as Duke Ellington, Angela Bofill, and Bob Dylan with masterful control of a remarkable voice slightly reminiscent of Joni Mitchell's. In any event, it soars like a saxophone. (A440)

Freak In
On one hand you have the reactionary re-boppers -- the players who seem to think jazz stopped developing in 1964 (with nothing before 1945, either). Then you have the avant-garde camp -- the self-indulgent types to whom melody, rhythm, and harmony are anathema. Both camps view "fusion" as a mistake. But trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas brooks none of it: He can swing and play "out," and he's recorded tribute albums to Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell. Freak In combines the best of all factions in a manner comparable to (not "sounds like," but is like) Miles Davis' watershed albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. (Bluebird)

Fado -- Exquisite Passion
Fado is a kind of Portuguese counterpart to American country blues, an acoustic form that reflects subtly the haunting strains of Spanish flamenco and the sinuous Arabic influences of North Africa. Like the blues, fado tells stories of angst felt by people down and out and shattered by love, played with a deceptive simplicity on guitars and sung with sultry, heartrending passion. This compilation presents one established figure (Amalia Rodrigues) and three flourishing younger talents she inspired (Mariza, Cristina Branco, Mafalda Arnauth) -- superb and unique singers all. A wonderful introduction to the music. (Narada World)

Live at Sin-é -- Legacy Edition
This set is technically not a reissue, as about 75 percent is previously unreleased. Far from being a cash-in move to exploit a dead artist, Live stands as a powerful testament to Buckley's protean abilities as both an original talent and an interpretive singer -- maybe one of the best since Sinatra. He takes on Van Morrison, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan ("my Elvis," Jeff said), Bob Dylan, Johnny Mathis, and Billie Holliday in a without-a-net solo context that is alternately captivating and harrowing, with a voice as distinctive and elemental as a change of season. (Columbia/Legacy)

Like Never Before
He's not getting older; he's getting better. Whereas most rockers and many jazzers understandably mellow with age, Merle Haggard seems invigorated by the scary times we live in. While his style is essentially unchanged -- soulful Bakersfield snap-and-twang country with swing-jazz undertones -- Haggard, far from being that "Okie from Muskogee" reactionary some thought he was, confronts media manipulation in W's post-9/11 America with the topical, discerning "That's the News." (Hag)


Rip the Jacker
You either love or revile Canibus' rough-as-sandpaper voice, his surliness, and his penchant for cribbing four-syllable words from science textbooks. But few would debate that the beats on this album are off the chain. Producer Stoupe the Enemy of Mankind blends flamenco guitar and gypsy melodies, which sound outright gothic -- especially when juxtaposed with the MC's scabrous rhymes. "Poet Laureate II" is a virtuoso performance: seven minutes long, no hooks, no chorus. (Babygrande)

Vaudeville Villain
Fans may want to check out cult rapper MF Doom's more sample-driven album, Take Me to Your Leader, which he released under the alias King Geedorah. In terms of quality, it's almost a toss-up. Geedorah is the three-headed flying lizard who battles Godzilla; Viktor Vaughn is the Marvel villain who fights the Fantastic Four. Vaudeville Villain is a better pick for diehards -- the tone is darker overall, and the rhymes are grimier. (Sound Ink)

Extinguished: Outtakes
If you were to metabolize Prefuse 73's music, you'd come out with a thousand bleeps and blips that, individually, sound like simple robot grunts. But by some weird alchemy, he weaves them into complex musical phrases. In fact, he makes machines sound as though they had personalities: melancholy ("Whisper in My Ear and Tell Me You Hate Me"), tense ("Dubs That Don't Match"), or smarmy ("Diarrhea Takes Over Your Life"). (Warp)

No Edge-Ups in South Africa
Seven Heads are sometimes a little too pretty for my taste; I'm not always grooving with Unspoken Heard's jazzy hooks or Djinji Brown's swank blactronica beats. But the East Coast clique has me pinned on this one. On the joint "Trackrunners," Asheru spits my favorite hip-hop rejoinder of the year: "Yo, don't hate me cuz I'm beautiful/Hate me cuz my lyrics sound smarter than yours." And it's true. (7 Heads)

Counting Other People's Money
It's scary that I consider myself a feminist while two of my favorite rappers are Ice Cube and Keak da Sneak. Perhaps I'm confusing their misogyny with their charisma. Keak, who announces at the beginning of this album that "They call me Keak da Sneak, but my real name is Kunte Kinte," sounds as if he's spent a lifetime eating nails and pebbles. But damned if his beats ain't the funkiest. (Mo Doe)

The Long Way Back
Although this record recalls the smoky jazz tones of T-Love's Return of the B Girl EP, this album sounds more sleek, urbane, and groove-driven. Fans of the EP won't be disappointed: T-Love still sounds like a cross between a B-girl and a '40s noir heroine. The splashiest tracks are "Swing Malindy" -- on which she scats in French -- and "Oh So Suite," which includes two percussive versions of the throwback joint "What's My Name?" (Astralwerks)

This Is Madness
In 1970, the Last Poets were well aware that popular discussions about race and class were out of step with the national reality. So they began incorporating art and agitprop, overlaying bongo beats with spoken lyrics and building fervor for the Black Panther movement. Laced with such classics as "Gashman," "When the Revolution Comes," and "This Is Madness," this two-CD box set will appeal to poetry buffs and rabble-rousers alike. (Light in the Attic)

The Horror
From the blaring horns and scraggy bass lines in the title track, it sounds as if RJD2 is striving for a lurid, cinematic steez. Even the funk numbers on this extended single have a gothic undertow. Still, a lot of songs feel cocoonish -- I like listening to this on headphones while smoking and reading Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. My favorite track for buggin' out is the "Final Frontier" remix, which has the swankiest beat. (Def Jux)

Something's Gotta Give
This group has the twelve-year-old girl audience on lock. Not only are they named after the first black Muppet on Sesame Street, but MC and producer Kimani Rogers is a TOTAL HUNK!!!! ( Rogers and Mr. Len (of Company Flow fame) lace up this album with crusty bass lines (illest on "SNM") and pithy, self-deprecating accounts ("A Meditation on Why Love Sucks"). (Third Earth Music)

Undaground Crewed
In my book, Medusa, T Nutty, and Hollow Tip all tie for the gangsta artist of the year award. I like Medusa best because she belts arias about her gangsta pussy and bucks the gender politics of mainstream rap, which are generally wack and retarded, anyway. The opening joint "Cold Piece of Work" is pure grit. You probably can't find this album in stores, so visit Medusa's Web site, (self-released)


This may very well be the coldest album I've ever loved; it's sure as silicon the one with the most repetitive beats. But it moves like a natural thing -- Allien's cut-up, über-processed vocals, guitar samples, synths, and battalion of glitches and complex machines swim in and out of one another like particles of light. The German producer and label maven makes minimalist techno sound sensual, badass, and wise. (Bpitch Control)

Feast of Wire
Joey Burns has always had a satiny voice, subtly evocative of all the little emotions that bandits try to hide; John Convertino arranges percussion like a dowager does her perfect desert garden. But with this fourth studio album proper the duo has finally made the Southwest an honest woman, plying it with just enough horns, pedal steel, haunting imagery (what is it with Burns and dead children?), and adventurous electronic touches. (Quarterstick)

Tranquil Isolation
You don't have to like Van Morrison's music to like Nicolai Dunger, but liking the former's voice will help. Because although Dunger's recent stuff follows a far more rural, bluesy road than his more experimental early work did, he still somehow has Morrison's pipes in his chest. With some help from the brothers Oldham (Will and Paul), the sixth full-length by this Swede presents a bewitching, marble-mouthed, slacker update on the Band. (Overcoat Recordings)

Truly She Is None Other
The hippest gal in all of retroland gets soft, showing her weary, vulnerable side on "Walk a Mile" and her lovelorn girl-group face on the Kinksian "Without You Here" (followed shortly thereafter by "Time Will Tell," one of two actual Kinks covers on the disc). Golightly may hang with the White Stripes these days, but Truly She proves that she's truly no flash in the garage-rock pan. (Damaged Goods)

The Sea and the Rhythm
Sam Beam is a Southern-fried, lovelorn Nick Drake. On The Sea and the Rhythm, his second Sub Pop offering, Beam focuses his softly spoken, golden-eyed lyrical acumen away from the melancholy politics of love for love's sake, and toward religious imagery (largely for love's sake). Sure, it's only a five-song EP, but they're five of the best songs put to tape this year. (Sub Pop)

Reach Out to X
The title and album art are abstruse, but the music inside (mostly by a guy really named John Paul Jones, late of the Lynnfield Pioneers) is simple and heartfelt. The JPJ forms sparse, hooky indie pop with a Big Star heart, great vocabulary ("You seem to haunt all the old haunts/In this ghost town/And my demons/Have no feelings/They remind me/Love's behind me"), and cleanly sung sentiments of love and love lost. (The Sea Isle)

Cool Rock
Independent music's best pop crooner drops the overt sexuality of previous releases and celebrates his new marriage with fervor. Along the way he pays rapturous, orchestral tribute to pop music and takes on folks who might say he has no right to sing so soulfully. If you like your voices expressive and unique (think Jeff Buckley without the melisma and melancholy), and your pop rich and irony-free, this is for you. (Misra)

Speakerboxx/The Love Below
I don't claim to know hip-hop. But judging by the parties I've been to lately, this double album is hip-hop that all narrow-assed indie rockers can understand. I hate pop radio, yet every time "Hey Ya" comes on, I want to dance, no matter where I am or what I'm doing. Whether you're down with Big Boi's straight-up (as if they could be) Outkast disc, or Andre 3000's Princely experiments, both of these records are among the year's best. (Arista)

This is the score to a theater piece created through two years of improvisations based on field recordings donated to, and discussions between, the Saratoga International Theater Institute and the post-chamber music group Rachel's. The result is incidental music woven from the sounds of clothes drying, nails being clipped, overheard conversations, and public transit clatter from Boston, Belgium, and beyond -- the soundtrack to your most brilliant, reflective life. (Quarterstick)

Real Hair
The Portland band's songs are now a bit shorter, and the music is a bit brighter. But Rollerball still plays fast and loose with the structures, and you'll still find elements of everything from underground hip-hop to post-ragas, classical piano figures to gothic psychedelia and Krautrock gallops, muffled disco rhythms to prog-rock, cabaret vocals, and the self-conscious kitchen sink. It's scary. It's funny. It's a circus tent put up in a record-store parking lot, and every open mind is invited. (Silber)


Hiroshima: Rising from the Abyss
This big-band masterpiece was conceived as a celebration of the ability of the people of Hiroshima to build a new life after the nuclear holocaust. In many ways it represents the summit of Akiyoshi's art, and indeed, within months of its release she announced plans to disband her orchestra to focus on working in smaller settings -- talk about going out on a high note. (True Life Jazz)

If I Had My Way
Davis was a blind street singer from North Carolina who made a few recordings early in his career, but came into his own during the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s, when he became mentor to a whole generation of young hotshot guitarists. These previously unissued performances from 1954 predate his "rediscovery" and include many pieces the Rev never recorded again. (Smithsonian Folkways)

This Swedish trio keeps refining its cutting-edge approach to traditional music: Lena Willemark is a great lead vocalist, fiddler Per Gudmundson a top-notch lead instrumentalist, and Ale Moller a perfect accompanist. Add the ability of all three to play various instruments, brilliant three-part vocals, and an ongoing commitment to excellence, and you have one of the best outfits in the entire acoustic music world. (NorthSide)

Passing Ships
Jazz pianist and composer Andrew Hill seems to make my list every year, and in 2003 he did it without even having to book rehearsals, because of the first release of this spectacular 1969 recording. Hill is heard at the helm of a great nine-piece outfit featuring the likes of Woody Shaw, Dizzy Reece, Julian Priester, and Joe Farrell. The soloing is sensational and the writing brilliant on a date that merits comparison with Hill's best work. (Blue Note)

Ronu Majumdar
Majumdar is a master of the ancient flute known as the bansuri, which was given a prominent place in Indian music by the late, great Pannalal Ghosh. Like Ghosh, Majumdar concentrates on the ravishingly beautiful sound of the instrument, and the way he embarks on adventurous melodic side trips without ever compromising the flow of the music is breathtaking. This is just a stunning record. (India Archive Music)

Harmony of Odd Numbers
This record rates as the surprise of the year, engineered by a trio of SF-based veterans unknown outside of the area -- their regular gig is at a coffeehouse in the avenues. Pianist Si Perkoff seems to have digested every nuance of Monk's style without ever sounding overly imitative, and bassist Frank Passantino and drummer Chuck Bernstein are always on the beam. A real joy. (CMB)

Kitty Lie Over
Piper O'Brien and fiddler O'Raghallaigh have produced a classic on their first collaborative release. Unlike some of the bigger-name groups who seem to regard the tunes as creatures that need to be tamed and taught tricks, these two are storytellers who relish every turn of the tale. In a great year for Irish records, this is the one I couldn't stop playing. (ACM)

Waiting for a Call
In the thirty years since his departure from the Bothy Band, Tommy Peoples' fame hasn't extended much beyond the inner circle of Irish musicians and cognoscenti, but now that he's living in Boston we can hope that will change. Most of this album was made in the mid-'80s with five newly recorded tracks rounding out the program. Like every record by this master fiddler, it's a must. (Shanachie)

Paris Blues
Though this edition of Horace Silver's group recorded six and a half classic records for Blue Note, hardbop fans would be happy to have as many more. Few bands could beat the lineup of Blue Mitchell, Junior Cook, Gene Taylor, and Roy Brooks for swing, good humor, and excellent soloing. This unreleased 1962 concert is made-to-order for modern-jazz lovers. (Pablo)

In Boston 1959
Merle Travis rarely played for Northern folk-boom audiences, and this recording shows what a pity that was. Though he had long grown accustomed to an electric guitar, a C&W audience, and a Los Angeles lifestyle, the great Kentucky thumbpicker-singer-songwriter had no trouble reverting to the style he learned back home. At his best, Travis had few equals as a solo guitarist, and he proves it here. (Rounder)


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